February 06, 2013
Swapping information after a car crash can lead to ID-theft burn
Michelle Singletary, longtime "The Color of Money" columnist for the Washington Post, hit a nerve with her August 14, 2012 column about the downside of sharing your personal information as is routinely done by drivers at the scene of a crash.
Here's her piece.
Thankfully, I haven't been in many automobile accidents. But the one major crash I was in involving another driver, I took down quite a bit of information.
The accident wasn't my fault. Nonetheless, I wanted to make sure the other driver wouldn't try to change his story after I contacted his insurance company. I had my reporter's notebook handy and took down the guy's driver's license number, insurance information, home telephone number (it was long before cellphones were ubiquitous) and his home address. I even collected similar information from a witness to the accident. When I called to report the crash, the claims representative was impressed with how thorough I had been.
It turns out that most of the information I gathered could have put the driver and the witness in jeopardy of identity theft, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC). But this was years before crooks really knew how valuable personal information can be.
It would appear I'm not alone in what information I mistakenly think needs to be collected following an auto accident. You generally need to give the other driver only your name and insurance information, which should include the name and phone number of your insurance provider.
Don't share personal information, such as your driver’s license number, home address, or even your telephone number, the association says.
And yet 40 percent of the people surveyed by the association felt they had to give their driver's license numbers. One in six would permit the other driver to photograph their licenses as a quick way to exchange information. The problem is that your driver's license number — after your Social Security number and date of birth — is commonly used to verify your identity. A quarter of the survey participants said that after an accident, they would share their home addresses (letting a stranger know where you live). Almost 30 percent of drivers think they are required to share their personal phone numbers.
I understand the desire to collect as much information as possible. It's probably what your mama or daddy told you to do. And if the accident isn't your fault, you want to make sure the other driver's insurance company covers the cost.
More than 5 million auto crashes occur every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2010, more than 3,000 people were killed in distracted-driving crashes, and 416,000 people were injured.
The last thing you are probably thinking about after an accident is someone stealing your identity. But what if the accident is staged for the specific purpose of stealing your personal information?
"It's very chaotic and intense after an accident and, as a result, most people have a tendency to give out more information than they should," said Kevin M. McCarty, NAIC president and Florida insurance commissioner. "Certainly, staged accidents are a very common way to defraud consumers and insurance companies. You have to be careful by only sharing information that is vital to complete the accident report."
To help you take the guesswork out of what information to share, the NAIC has developed a mobile application, "WreckCheck." The app takes you step-by-step through what you should do immediately after an accident. You get easy prompts that recommend, among other things, that you take pictures of the license plate and landmarks and record a description of what happened.
The app will allow you to e-mail to yourself or your insurance company an accident report. It's free and available for both iPhone and Android smartphones. However, you have to have at least a 3GS iPhone to download the app. I have the older 3G iPhone. So no app for me. Although the majority of Android users should be able to get the app, some with newer, smarter phones may not be able to download it, according to the NAIC.
Don't worry, though: You can still get the information the old-fashioned way. NAIC offers a downloadable form at www.insureuonline.org. Once on the site, click on the link for "Auto" and scroll to the bottom of the page to access the link to the accident checklist and tips. Keep a copy in your glove compartment. Please note that the downloadable form and the mobile app have a place to collect driver's license information, with an asterisk noting that such information is not required. You would try to get this information if the driver would not provide or did not have insurance information and you were put in the position of needing to collect as much information as possible.
By the way, nearly 20 survey participants thought you should call the police only if someone is injured.
You should always call the police. Some local jurisdictions might not dispatch an officer to the scene, but call anyway. Later, find out how you can file an accident report — especially if you aren't the one at fault.
She followed up that column with one on August 18, 2012 that was even juicier; it appears below.
In the age of identity theft, we are bound to run into conflicting information about what data we should share with providers, government agencies and especially strangers.
Recently, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners cautioned drivers about providing too much information following an auto accident.
In many cases, the association said, drivers put themselves in jeopardy of being identity-theft victims by supplying personal information such as their driver’s license number.
The association has put together a checklist and created a mobile application for iPhones and Android devices to help people after an accident. The app is called WreckCheck, and you can get it at www.insureuonline.org. (If you can't get the app, you can download a paper version.) Neither the app nor the paper checklist spells out state-specific requirements for sharing information.
After I wrote about this issue last week, I heard from a few personal-injury attorneys who told me that in some states, drivers are required to exchange license numbers. In Virginia, for example, drivers involved in an accident are required to provide their names, addresses, driver's license, and vehicle registration numbers. Maryland law mandates that drivers give similar information but specifically says, "on request, exhibit his license to drive." You are to do the same for the police investigating the accident.
I asked the NAIC about the conflicting information. As a result, it made some changes and clarifications to its checklist, and the new version is online.
"Of course we urge consumers to follow their local laws," said Scott Holeman, communications director of NAIC. "This is one of the reasons NAIC recommends you always call the police in the event of an accident. They are your first, best resource on the nuances of state law, especially if someone is injured."
If you aren’t sure what's required, you can assume the police can help coordinate the required exchange of information, Holeman said.
But the larger point is that we still are being asked to voluntarily provide personal information that makes us vulnerable. Identity theft is increasingly becoming not simply a minor bother in people's lives but an ordeal. In 2011, identity fraud increased 13 percent, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. More than 11.6 million adults became victims of identity fraud. A contributing factor was a 67 percent increase in data breaches. Victims of data breaches are 9.5 times more likely to be a subject of identity fraud, Javelin found.
In the worst cases, people spend an extraordinary amount of time and money trying to clear up the damage when their personal information is stolen. Their credit can be ruined. Sometimes victims are mistaken for the identity thief and wrongly arrested.
My father-in-law's Medicare card has his Social Security number on it. And yet the federal government, which issued the card to him, warns citizens, especially seniors, to be careful about sharing their Social Security number.
For tips on how to reduce the risk of identity theft, including those who have to use a Medicare card, go to www.privacyrights.org and search for "Coping With Identity Theft: Reducing the Risk of Fraud."
I heard from one reader who was harassed by a driver who had hit her while she was walking in a parking lot.
"In the ambulance, I shared with the police officer my driver's license and provided my telephone number, which is unlisted for professional and personal reasons," the reader said. "I personally did not give any information to the driver of the car who hit me. On the Sunday morning following the accident, the driver called me at my home several times and even offered to come to my home to bring me flowers. Certainly he was expressing concern for me but was also anxious about what the legal outcome would be for him. He was a stranger who now knew where I lived, that I had been seriously injured by his actions, and was distraught."
The driver had gotten the women’s information by looking at the accident report.
"When he continued to call me periodically, I had to ask his insurance agent and the policeman to communicate the message to the driver not to call me again," she said.
So we have the NAIC, the standard-setting and regulatory support organization created and governed by the chief insurance regulators in the country, cautioning about giving out too much information. And some state laws that directly require us to do so.
Err on the side of caution. Only provide the information that is absolutely necessary or required by law.
Fair — and excellent — warning.
February 6, 2013 at 04:01 PM | Permalink
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What's the big deal about giving out information at an accident scene? It will all be on the police report anyway, and everyone involved can get a copy of the report. At best you'll just be delaying giving out the information by a few days, when the police report becomes available.
Posted by: OldHippie | Feb 7, 2013 11:53:43 AM
Posted by: John A | Feb 6, 2013 11:23:31 PM
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